WASHINGTON -- All the great markers of American history -- whether the Mayflower Compact, the Constitution, the civil rights and voting acts, the integration of the armed forces or the equality of women -- have been things that have held us together. They marked how, at the heart of our polity, we were standing together, a nation united before the eyes of the world.
That is why this past week has been so deeply disappointing and improbable for those of us who believed we knew some truths about the nation we love, but no longer seem to understand. The acts of the less-than-super "super committee" that was to save us from financial collapse are to be viewed less in anger than in disbelief.
How could they? How could these men and women, members of Congress all, choose to push this country to the brink of disaster rather than give up just a small parcel of their wealth or influence? And that is where their tawdry acts come to rest, wrapped 'round with the realization by practical people that they could not do even the small things they were asked to do.
Think about it! The committee, with six members of each party, did not need to rebuild a Germany or a Japan from the ruins of World War II. They did not have to design new cities or towns or nuclear plants after earthquakes or tsunamis. They did not have to fund and provide care for the 32,000 American military left wounded or partly paralyzed after the Iraq war.
All they needed to do was make a decision on cuts in the government's budgets and/or changes in the taxes for the immensely wealthy. And they couldn't do that. So one has the right to wonder whether our elected leaders can do anything.
As helpful as it would have been, few asked basic questions like whether increasing taxes on the upper 1 percent that we hear so much about would translate into the "jobs, jobs, jobs" we also hear endlessly about. The studies and polls that I have seen have, without great ado, answered, "No, it would not."
The very rich, it seems, are not setting up small factories with their billions of dollars. Rather, they are buying large homes and yachts and golf courses, none of which adds huge numbers of jobs to the county's ledgers. Nor do the American corporations that now work abroad and refuse to pay taxes here at home because they are much higher than in some other countries. G.E., for instance, pays no taxes at all here.
Another basic question that no one seems to ask involves our military. You can join the well-known chorus that now praises our homecoming "warriors." Or you can ask why no one seems to mention that these warriors keep ending up on the losing side of the wars our policymakers send them to fight, whether Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan, despite the ungodly destructiveness of our new weapons.
If the funds used for these killing fields were to be returned to the American treasury, we would indeed find a change in our debts and deficits. Then we would again deserve the position of No. 1 in a constantly expanding capitalistic world.
One answer for our present predicament comes from Dr. Drew Pinsky, the prominent TV doctor and personal problems adviser. He thinks that the narcissism, the intense self-involvement we see in the theatrical and television world has had an influence on individuals, especially those in public or business positions. Instead of working together to solve our problems, everyone is busy looking out for what's best for themselves. That, Drew thinks, is essentially what is wrong. And I think he's right.
If people ask why we're in decline, this is one answer you might give, and you might add that, once it starts, decline goes very fast. It does not creep along; it starts slowly, but quickly builds up power as it crashes. That is why every empire has been destroyed within 50 years of its height.
The overlying, overwhelmingly important element in all our current problems -- from the insufferable super committee to our exploding debt payments -- is how small they are, how easily they could be solved if only we would work together as we did at Plymouth, as we did in Jamestown, as we did finally in the writing of the Constitution and even in World War II.
How have we come to expect so little from our fellow countrymen? And when did we forget our heritage of working together for our future?